Lawyers To Present Defense For Officer Accused Of Killing Black Teenager
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Lawyers in Chicago offer the defense of Jason Van Dyke today. He's the white police officer who fired 16 shots in 2014 and is accused of murdering a black teenager, Laquan McDonald. Chip Mitchell of our member station WBEZ reports the defense faces an obstacle.
CHIP MITCHELL, BYLINE: The obstacle is a police dashcam video of the shooting. It was released more than a year after the event. On the day of the release, Jason Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder. The video sparked a public outcry and calls for sweeping police reform. Now, nearly three years later, Van Dyke is on trial, and the video is still playing a central role. It shows the officer shoot McDonald to the pavement, then shows the boy crumpled on his side taking shot after shot. Last week, prosecutors played the video for the jury over and over again. One of their last witnesses was FBI ballistics expert Scott Patterson. He analyzed the video frame by frame to determine how long it took Van Dyke to fire the 16 shots.
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SCOTT PATTERSON: Fourteen-point-two seconds.
C. MITCHELL: Just over 14 seconds. The video does not include audio, so Patterson made his own recording of 16 shots fired at that rate.
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C. MITCHELL: The idea was to sweep away claims that Van Dyke shot in one quick burst. Then prosecutors called in another expert with FBI ties, a former firearms trainer for the bureau named Urey Patrick.
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UREY PATRICK: Mr. McDonald never made any move towards the police officers. He's walking away from them. He is a risk. There's no question. He's been noncompliant, and he is armed with a knife. But there is nobody within reach of him. And he is moving away from the only people on the scene. He does not pose an imminent risk of serious injury or death to either of the officers.
C. MITCHELL: Today Van Dyke's attorneys start presenting their evidence. Courthouse veterans say the defense has to get the jury past the video.
ANDREA LYON: The hope, I'm sure, of the defense in this case is that the shock of the video has now worn off, that it's been seen so many times that it no longer has as much impact.
C. MITCHELL: Valparaiso University law professor Andrea Lyon has represented more than 130 homicide defendants. She says the defense needs the jurors to believe two things.
LYON: That Van Dyke was in fear at the time that he shot and that his fear was in fact reasonable.
C. MITCHELL: Former Assistant Cook County Public Defender Sharone Mitchell points to what's likely to be a crucial defense argument.
SHARONE MITCHELL: That the video that we're seeing is not the same reality as what Jason Van Dyke saw when he got out of the car. So they want the knife to be bigger, the distance to be closer and the threat to be larger than what it looks like to us in the video.
C. MITCHELL: And then there's a big strategy decision for Van Dyke's attorneys - whether to put him on the witness stand. Longtime defense attorney Steven Greenberg says that would be a risky move.
STEVEN GREENBERG: Van Dyke has prepared police reports. And in the police reports, he's explained that McDonald was coming at him, that McDonald had raised his arm up in the air and it looked like he was in danger of being stabbed. That's not on the video. That's going to cause a lot of problems if he hits the stand and he's cross-examined.
C. MITCHELL: After nearly four years of delays, protests, promises of police reforms, this case could go to the jury by week's end. For NPR News, I'm Chip Mitchell in Chicago.
INSKEEP: Just so you know, member station WBEZ and the Chicago Tribune have a daily podcast about the trial which is called 16 Shots.
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